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Dell Bronson’s Porte-Monnaie

13 Sep

In The King’s Daughter, the heroine of the story is Miss Dell Bronson, a fashionable young lady, raised in the lap of Boston luxury by a wealthy aunt and uncle.

An antique porte-monnaie made of metal mesh

An antique porte-monnaie made of metal mesh

In writing about Dell, Isabella described her as dainty, neat, and graceful. Dell was always fashionably, but tastefully dressed; and because of her uncle’s wealth, Dell was able to afford the latest styles of dress and accessories.

A sterling silver porte-monnaie. It's long shape suggests it was carried in a pocket.

A sterling silver porte-monnaie. It’s long shape suggests it was ideal for carrying in a pocket.

One of Dell’s accessories was a porte-monnaie, which she carried in her skirt pocket.

A silver porte-monnaie, lined in blue leather. From Etsy.

A silver porte-monnaie, lined in blue leather. From Etsy.


The blue leather interior of the silver porte-monnaie features bellows to separate coin denominations. From Etsy.

The blue leather interior of the silver porte-monnaie features bellows to separate coin denominations. From Etsy.

Literally, a porte-monnaie was a place for money—specifically coins. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, men and women carried their paper money and coins separately. Paper bills were carried flat in wallets or bill-folds, but all the many coins in circulation at the time were usually carried in porte-monnaies.

A two-cent piece, in circulation until 1873. It was the first American coin to carry the motto, In God We Trust.

A two-cent piece, in circulation until 1873. It was the first American coin to carry the motto, In God We Trust.

And what a variety of coins there were! In addition to the pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters we know today, people commonly carried:

Two-cent pieces
Silver three-cent pieces
Three-cent pieces made from nickel
Twenty-cent pieces

The three-cent piece, made of nickel, was in circulation until 1889.

The three-cent piece, made of nickel, was in circulation until 1889.

And gold coins (also known as Eagles) weren’t uncommon. They were minted in denominations of $1, $2.50, $5, $10, and $20.

Carried by both men and women, porte-monnaies were made of sturdy material, such as leather or silver. At home, women kept their porte-monnaie in the pocket of their skirt or apron. Outside the home, women would often tuck their porte-monnaie inside their purse or reticule.

Antique silver porte-monnaie. The center emblem has a space for engraving the initials of the owner. From Pinterest.

Antique silver porte-monnaie. The center emblem has a space for engraving the initials of the owner. From Pinterest.

Men kept a porte-monnaie in a desk drawer at home, and carried it in a pocket while out and about.

A French porte-monnaie made of mother-of-pearl, with brass and silver inlay. From Pinterest.

A French porte-monnaie made of mother-of-pearl, with brass and silver inlay. From Pinterest.

References to porte-monnaies date as far back as the 1850s but the term came into fashion during the American Civil War, when Americans considered anything French to be the height of fashion.

Which of the fashionable porte-monnaies pictured here do you think Dell Bronson would have carried? Cast your vote below

Delicious Johnny-Cakes

11 Jun

Johnny-cake was a staple on the menu of almost every meal prepared in an Isabella Alden novel. That’s because johnny-cakes were inexpensive to make and they were filling and satisfying. They were much like pancakes, but were made with corn meal instead of flour. The basic recipe was simple:

To a quart of Indian meal (corn meal) add a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoonful of sugar. Sift, scald with boiling water so as to make a very thick mush. Let it cool a little, then thin with milk so it will drop from a spoon. Have a griddle hot and well greased, and drop a spoonful of the batter for each cake. When brown, turn and brown the other side.

Johnny-cakes were usually served hot with butter or honey.

Ad Ladies Home Journal March 1919 ed 01

In Household Puzzles, Maria Randolph could make a delicious creamy johnny-cake that was so good that after eating them, “the comfort of the Randolph family reached a height unknown for weeks.”

In Mara, easy-going Gertrude was so placid about planning her wedding, her mother accused her of being willing to be “married in her old brown serge, and to have johnny-cake and warmed-up potatoes for refreshments.”

Frying griddle cakes ad 1919 ed

And when Mrs. Adams decided to earn a bit of extra money by keeping house for the Ward family in The Hall in the Grove, she had to put together a quick dinner for the family:

It was just the simplest of dinners: a dish of baked potatoes, a platter of beefsteak, a plate of butter, a plate of steaming johnny-cake, and a pot of tea. No pickles, or fruits, or relishes of any sort.

There were probably as many variations of johnny-cake as there were cooks. Some cooks fried them in bacon grease instead of lard, which gave them an attractive gold color and added flavor.

Ad Ladies Home Journal March 1919 ed 02

Adding an egg or two, sour cream or buttermilk made johnny-cakes light and fluffy.

Instead of frying, some cooks baked johnny-cake in the oven in a large pan, which they cut after baking into several servings.

In warm months when fruit was plentiful, cooks added applesauce or bits of apple, sliced strawberries, stewed pumpkin or peach preserves to their batter for a special treat.

Click here to read more about Isabella Alden’s books mentioned in this post.

Sally Lunn at Mount Hermon

10 Feb

In The Browns at Mount Hermon, Mrs. Roberts was overjoyed when her most fervent prayer was answered—her daughter, Ailene gave herself to the Lord. Mrs. Roberts wanted to celebrate the blessing in the best way she knew how: by preparing a special breakfast for everyone to enjoy.

Illustration of woman reading a recipe.“Oh, well, we won’t mind if we don’t have muffins for breakfast tomorrow morning. What does it matter what we have to eat? Yes, it does, it matters a great deal. We want the best breakfast tomorrow morning that was ever had in this house. I should like to feed everybody on roses! Though after all, I don’t suppose they would like them to eat half so well as they do muffins. Or Sally Lunn; I’ll have Sally Lunn tomorrow, whole sheets of it. Mr. Brown says nothing was ever better to eat than my Sally Lunn; and Ailene likes it better than anything else; I wonder I didn’t think of it the first thing. Oh, Mary Brown! I’m that happy tonight over the child, that it is a wonder I can think of anything to eat! I feel as though I could fly, without wings. Don’t you think she’s settled it! She belongs to the Lord!”

Sally Lunn was a type of cake that originated in England; and there are American versions of the Sally Lunn recipe in cook books dating back to early 1800s. By 1907, when The Browns at Mount Hermon was written, Sally Lunn had become a favorite pastry on American tables, too.

Henry's Cook Book and Household Companion (1883)

Henry’s Cook Book and Household Companion (1883)

There were as many versions of Sally Lunn as there were cooks; but, in general, Sally Lunn was a rather dense cake, much like sponge cake, that could be baked in a variety of ways.

For breakfast, it was usually made up in loaves, then served toasted and spread with butter.

from The Winston Cook Book by Helen Cramp (1913)

A Sally Lunn cake, pictured in The Winston Cook Book by Helen Cramp (1913)

It was also baked in muffin tins and served as tea-cakes with honey, fruit jelly, or sweet sauce.

Black and white photo of three individual cakes arranged on a plate.

Sally Lunn tea cakes. From Good Housekeeping magazine, 1907

If you made several sheets of Sally Lunn, as Mrs. Roberts planned to do, and it happened to go stale because you didn’t eat it fast enough, never fear. A 1903 edition of The Epicure magazine recommended cutting stale Sally Lunn cake into small slices or shapes, soaking then in a thin custard, and frying them in clarified butter. Sprinkle the top with sugar, and “you had very good Beignets.”

Here’s a recipe from 1913 that may have been close to the recipe Mrs. Roberts followed for her Sally Lunn cake:

Recipe Sally Lunn Cake

Click on the image to see a larger version you can print out.

You can learn more about the history of Sally Lunn cake. Click here to read a post at about Sally Lunn cake.

Cover_The Browns at Mount HermonClick on the book cover to find out more about The Browns at Mount Hermon.


Jessie’s Jockey

29 Jan

Jessie Wells, the heroine of Isabella Alden’s 1880 novel by the same name, never went anywhere without her jockey. Of course, when Isabella wrote about Jessie’s jockey, she didn’t mean someone who rides a horse . . . she meant Jessie’s hat.

Jockey hats were very fashionable from the 1860s through the early 1900s. The style of jockey hats changed over the course of those years, but the basic design remained the same: a jockey hat had a brim or peak that protruded in front and a rounded, narrow crown that fit close to the top and sides of the head. Jockeys were usually trimmed with a tassel or feather.

Elisabeth McClellan illustrated the 1860s style of jockey hat in her book, Historic Dress in America.

Drawing of a woman in Victorian-era dress and hairstyle wearing a hat that sits high on her head with several feathers swept back from the brim.

Illustration of a jockey hat from Historical Dress in America by Elisabeth McClellan.


The style of hat was so much in vogue in 1860s America, a popular song was written about it. You can click on the image below to read the song’s lyrics.

Cover illustration showing a woman in Civil War era dress wearing a hat that fits against her head, with a turned up brim and a tassle on one side.

Cover to the sheet music for the 1860s song Jockey Hat and Feather.


Perhaps the most famous illustration of a jockey hat was the one fashioned for the character of Scarlett O’Hara to wear in post-Civil War Georgia in the movie, Gone with the Wind.

The famous jockey hat worn by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.

The famous jockey hat worn by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.


Though it was made of drapery fabric (as we all know), Scarlett’s jockey was quite fashionable with its styling and trim.

Jessie’s jockey hat would not have been as fashionable or as luxurious as Scarlett’s. Jessie’s jockey may have been made of straw, and the brim might have been more like a visor than a peak pulled low on her forehead, as this 1878 illustration shows:

Drawing of a young girl wearing a straw jockey hat with ribbons trailing down the back.


Straw jockeys were in fashion in the 1870s and 1880s. Isabella may have imagined Jessie’s hat of straw, because she wrote scenes in the book where Jessie set her jockey down on the ground (an action that would have soiled a jockey made of fabric) and she often used her jockey to fan herself.

Illustration of a woman with her arms around a young girl who is wearing a straw jockey hat trimmed with flowers and pulled forward over her forehead.

Version of a girl’s jockey hat from La Mode Illustrée.


In the late 1800s the styling of jockey hats changed again. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine described the latest version in their November, 1883 issue:

Article describing jockey hats made of felt or velvet. This has a visor, front, and band of the close cap worn by jockeys, but the crown is higher, has a crease or fold front to back, and the back of the crown is cut off so that it rests lightly upon the knot of hair..

Interestingly, what was fashionable in America was not so fashionable in other parts of the world. The British magazine, Household Words, published this warning about jockey hats in 1884:

Article condemning jockey hats for grown-up girls because they make the wearer look "fast."


In America, there were no such restrictions, however, and ladies wore their jockey hats sitting forward on their foreheads at a fashionably jaunty angle.

Color illustration showing two women and a young girl dressed in Victorian-era attire and wearing embellished straw jockey hats pulled forward so the brim covers their foreheads.

Fashionable jockey hats for ladies and young girls, from La Mode Illustrée.


Many thanks to blog reader Merry Chris for suggesting this topic.

Cover_Jessie WellsYou can click on the book cover to read more about Isabella Alden’s book, Jessie Wells.

Do You Speak Pansy?

15 Dec

Image of woman in gown and shawl holding an open bookIsabella Alden sometimes used terms or phrases that were common at the time, but have since gone out of use . . . and today’s readers may not have a clue what she means.

On this blog you can now easily find posts that explain some of those words and phrases. Under the Categories list on the right you’ll  see a new category for Pansy’s Dictionary. Follow the link to read blog posts that define peculiar words in Isabella’s books. Here are some of the terms we’ve already defined:

Have you come across a word or phrase in Isabella’s books that stumped you? Share it using the comment section below and we’ll define the term in future posts. You’ll be speaking fluent Pansy in no time!

Flossy’s Pongee Coat

8 Dec

Fashion Retailer's newspaper ad for spring coats 1911

In the book Four Mothers at Chautauqua a certain pongee coat played an important role in the story. It was because of the pongee coat that Miss Hazel Harris met handsome Burnham Roberts. It was the pongee coat that made Burnham’s mother, Flossy Roberts, realize how much Hazel’s family neglected her. And it was gossip about Hazel wearing the pongee coat that set off a fearful argument between Hazel and her aunt.

Ladies Coat Styles for Summer 1911So what, exactly, is a pongee coat? And what was so special about that coat that everyone in the story seemed to notice it?

When the book was published in 1913, pongee coats were very popular, although not everyone could afford to own one. In those days women’s coats were made out of many different fabrics: serge and wool tweed were staples in cool weather; taffeta and linen in warmer months.

But in summer, when days were warm and nights were only slightly cooler, ladies needed their coats to not only ward off potential chills, but to protect their gowns, skirts and blouses from soiling.

Pongee coat style in 1911So in summer, women’s coats had to be serviceable but light-weight and cool. Linen and taffeta were, for a long time, the fabrics of choice for summer coats; but about 1903 the fashionable world rediscovered pongee, a type of silk that originated in Shantung China over 3500 years ago.

Pongee silk was a favorite for summer wear because it was cool, soft to the touch, long-wearing, and could be bought in varying weights.

Pongee had one other advantage as a summer fabric . . . it was washable. Unlike taffeta and linen, pongee silk could go right into the laundry tub.

Ivory Soap ad 1920

Ivory Soap Flakes included pongee in its list of washable fabrics in this 1920 ad.

An expensive silk that could also be laundered was a fashion game-changer in the early 1900s. By 1905 dressmakers and garment manufacturers had integrated the fabric into their summer designs.

Click on this image to read the full fashion page from the March 20, 1910 edition of the Omaha Sunday Bee.

Click on this image to read the full fashion page from the March 20, 1910 edition of the Omaha Sunday Bee.

Pongee’s natural color was a soft ecru, which was very much in vogue; but once a reliable method for dying pongee silk was developed, the fabric could be bought in every imaginable color.

Pongee Coat Style in 1911It was also available in varying weights, which meant it could be used in making everything from light-weight blouses and dresses, to parasols, belts and gloves.

It was flexible enough to lend itself to tiny “pinch-tuck” details, and sturdy enough (in medium and heavier weights) to pleat nicely in skirts and tailored jackets.

Click on the image to read the full fashion article about embroidered pongee shirtwaists in a 1911 edition of The Washington Herald.

Click on the image to read the full fashion article about embroidered pongee shirtwaists in a 1911 edition of The Washington Herald.

The fabric was even used to make hats. Pongee silk held shapes well; in lighter weights it was perfect for the layered scarf look so popular in driving hats.

Click on the image to read the full-page article from a 1911 edition of The Washington Herald.

Click on the image to read the full-page article from a 1911 edition of The Washington Herald.

Budget-minded consumers may have made do with shirtwaists and dresses made of gingham (which cost about 6 cents a yard) or cotton muslin (8 cents a yard). But if you wanted your summer clothes to be made of finer fabrics, you had to pay for it.

Article from The San Francisco Call, August 29, 1909.

Article from The San Francisco Call, August 29, 1909. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Prices for pongee silk varied widely. American-made pongee in natural ecru ran about 70 to 80 cents a yard.

By comparison, genuine heavy Chinese pongee suitable for making coats cost $2.00 or more per yard.

Pongee was available in colors, but dyed pongee cost much more than the natural ecru color. Lighter weights of pongee silk also cost more, and they were highly desired because they were used to tailor gowns and shirtwaists.


Click on the image to read the full fashion article from the May 26, 1907 edition of The Evening Star.

Click on the image to read the full fashion article from the May 26, 1907 edition of The Evening Star.

That may explain why Flossy’s pongee coat was so eye-catching. Flossy lent her coat to Hazel Harris because Hazel had nothing to wear for a drive out in Flossy’s carriage. Flossy convinced Hazel to wear her long pongee coat so it would cover Hazel’s cheap and ragged clothes.

A gossip remembered seeing Hazel riding in Flossy’s carriage because Hazel’s coat caught her eye:

“I confess that I stared, especially at her lovely coat; it attracted me almost as much as her face.”

“Her ‘lovely coat’!” repeated Josephine, dazed.

“Yes, she had on a perfectly beautiful coat, heavily embroidered. I don’t think I ever saw a handsomer one. I am very fond of pongee.”

Hazel herself described the coat as a “beautiful coat that fitted her to perfection.”

But generous Flossy believed that it was Hazel who made the coat beautiful:

“She looked lovely in it,” Mrs. Roberts said, thoughtfully. “I didn’t know it was so pretty until I saw it on her.”

A heavily embroidered, colored pongee coat, tailored so it fit close to the body, would have been extravagantly expensive in 1913, and Marion Dennis mentioned that Flossy’s coat cost $30. Compare that with the prices of pongee coats in this ad from a 1910 edition of the Omaha Daily Bee newspaper (click on the image to see a larger version):

Ad for Pongee Coats from the Omaha Daily Bee, June 19 1910

Flossy described the moment when the carriage ride came to an end and Hazel had to take the pongee coat off:

“She slipped the coat off in the quietest way as we turned the corner into Terrace Avenue and patted it lovingly as she laid it on the seat and said to it—not to me, mind you, but to it—’Thank you, darling; you are beautiful and I have worn you for two whole hours. I shall never forget you.’ Wasn’t that original and pathetic? She is certainly a very interesting girl. I am quite determined to know more of her.”

And Flossy did get to know Hazel quite well; and since Four Mothers at Chautauqua had a very happy ending, it’s entirely possible that Hazel was one day able to own a pongee coat of her very own.


Helen’s Alexandre Gloves

28 Oct

Helen Randolph loved the finer things in life. She measured almost every important life event—from her mother’s funeral, to the eligibility of the suitors who courted her—by the cost of the clothes she wore at the time. Throughout the book Household Puzzles, Helen’s material-girl-grade spending habits played a major part in her family’s descent into poverty.

For example, at her mother’s funeral, Helen’s eye for fashion detail required that she and her sisters dress in a way that was “very neat and plain and appropriate.” Isabella Alden believed that to be very neat and plain and appropriate at funerals means to pay somebody a good deal of money. She wrote that Helen and her three sisters “were shrouded in long crape veils, and about the details of their dress everything was appropriate also, from the perfect-fitting Alexandre kids to the wide black bordered cambric handkerchiefs.”

Advertisement for Traver Kid Gloves

The only problem was the family couldn’t afford the veils or the gloves. Helen’s insistence that they buy the items on credit anyway—knowing they could never repay the debt—reveals a lot about her character. And the fact that Helen got her way also shows the weakness of her family in standing up to her, because, in the end, Helen and her sisters wore the Alexandre Kid Gloves.

Panels of a folding trade card for Foster’s Kid Gloves

Alexandre Kid Gloves were no ordinary gloves. They were manufactured in the Grenoble region of France, an area that was home to the world’s finest glove-makers. Yet above all its competition, Alexandre Kid Gloves enjoyed a reputation for exceptional quality and fit.

Alexandre Kid Gloves ad

Alexandre kids were celebrated as the finest French-made gloves available, and they were hard to come by. In the late eighteenth century, only one American importing firm had exclusive rights to sell Alexandre gloves in America, which added to the merchandise’s cache.

Lady’s beaded Alexandre gloves, circa 1890

By nineteenth century standards, Alexandre gloves were quite expensive. While the average pair of American-made ladies’ kid gloves cost about $1.00 (as illustrated by this retailer’s price list), Alexandre gloves cost three or four times that amount.

Glove retailer’s price card. The number of buttons (2-button, 4-button, 6-button, etc.) denoted the length of the glove.

At the time Household Puzzles was published in 1875, the average urban family income was about $700 a year (or $58 a month); of that amount, two-thirds was spent on food and heating, leaving just $19 a month for housing, clothing, medical care, entertainment, and saving for old age.

The Randolph family’s income was far below that of the average family. Yet Helen schemed and planned in order to buy the gloves. She even reasoned that if three pairs of American-made gloves cost $6.75, it was still a better deal to buy one pair of Alexandre gloves for $3.75. It just made sense to her.

She may have learned about the cost of Alexandre gloves from her suitor, Horace Munroe, who was a merchant of “highly cultivated taste” who stocked gloves and ribbons and merinos and muslins in endless variety.

Horace himself wore Alexandre kids, “of a pale stone color” on the day he proposed marriage to Helen. Colored gloves were quite fashionable (except for evening wear). Fashion magazines like The Delineator, Metropolitan, The Muncy, and Holland’s kept ladies and gentlemen abreast of the newest colors and styles of gloves to be worn in the coming months.

Gloves weren’t just an accessory for men and women; they were essential articles of clothing. Ladies never left their homes during the day without their gloves. They wore them constantly while in public and didn’t remove them until they returned to the privacy of their own homes. Even while drinking tea or eating a meal, ladies kept their gloves on; they simply unfastened some buttons at their wrists in order to slip the fingers of their gloves off.

Drinking tea while wearing gloves.

Gloves were also essential for evening and at the end of the nineteenth century, white kids were absolutely required for evening occasions for both men and women.

Gloved young ladies enjoying a performance in George Elgar Hicks’ painting, “Fair Critics,” 1886

It’s not surprising, then, that white kid-skin gloves were often bought by the dozens, rather than by the individual pair, in order to ensure a supply of clean and pristine gloves for all occasions. With those quantities in mind, only wealthy individuals could afford to wear exceptional glove brands on a daily basis.

Many style-conscious women tried to pass their American-made kid gloves off as French-made Alexandres. And some unscrupulous retailers marketed lesser-quality kid gloves using the name “Alexandre.”

Advertisement from The Milwaukee Journal, December 1890

In fact, the exclusive importer for Alexandre gloves (A. T. Stewart) was constantly battling look-alike and knock-off merchandisers; and on several occasions, took out ads warning the public about imposters:

Notice published in The Roundtable Magazine, Nov. 30, 1867

All Alexandre merchandise was marked with the company’s distinctive logo. On gloves, the mark was stamped on the inside of the glove near the wrist:

Gentlemen and ladies who owned Alexandre gloves took care to ensure the label was visible when they unfastened their gloves at the wrist. And if the weather allowed, some women were known to carry one of their Alexandre gloves (in a way that the brand logo was visible, of course) while hiding their gloveless hand in a muff.

In the end, Helen got her pair of Alexandre Kid Gloves and she accepted Horace’s marriage proposal; but whether she found happiness with either remained to be seen.


Tidies in Every Home

21 Oct

An essential accessory in every well-managed home in the late 19th Century was the tidy. A tidy was a piece of cloth used to protect furniture. Tidies were draped over the backs of chairs or placed on the flat tops of tables, dressers, or chests of drawers.

Tassled tidy in a Victorian sitting room

Today we’d call them doilies or antimacassars. Depending on the household and a family’s means, tidies could be very simple and plain or elaborately decorated creations of silk, velvet, or other costly materials.

1890 photo of a Scottish sitting room with a tidy draped over pillow on the front center chair

Tidies weren’t just decorative; they served a very useful purpose. Without tidies, upholstered furniture would have been ruined at an alarming rate by the grooming products people used.

Image of Ayers Hair Vigor trade card with young woman

At the time, men, women and children used hair dressings of various kinds on a daily basis. Unfortunately, hygiene habits were different then and people didn’t wash the dressings from their hair with the same frequency. Housekeepers draped tidies over the backs of chairs and sofas to keep all that hair oil and cream from rubbing off on the furniture.

Like today, there were hair products for every need. For ladies, Ayers Hair Vigor offered delicately perfumed hair dressings.


Front side of an Ayers Hair Vigor trade card     Back of the trade card detailing manufacturer's claims

Rowlands’ Macassar Oil (from which we get the word, antimacassar) advertised its product as a pure oil that prevented grey hair.

Macasar Oil ad 1895

There was Mellier’s Hair Dressing, made with quinine, which the manufacturer claimed relieved dandruff, itching or irritated scalp.

Melliers Hair Dressing with quinine

There were even hair products that claimed to cure baldness, such as Barry’s Tricopherous preparation, which guaranteed that it would restore hair to bald heads.


And Halls Hair Renewer also promised to “stimulate hair growth,” as well as cleanse and beautify hair.


Perhaps one of the most popular products was Seven Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Grower, which hit the market in 1883. The product was named for the seven daughters of the Sutherland family, who bottled a foul-smelling concoction developed by their mother, which they claimed gave them healthy hair that reached almost to the floor.

Seven Sutherland Sisters advertising card

The Sutherland sisters used their own images to advertise their hair grower and toured the country promoting their product.

Photo of Victoria Sutherland

With so much hair dressing in use, efficient housekeepers relied on tidies to protect their furniture from staining and damage. Tidies had to be laundered and changed frequently, and women kept a good stock of them in the house at all times.

Tidy from Godeys Ladys Book 1880

Tidy pattern from Godey’s Lady’s Book 1880

Instructions for making tidies filled the pages of women’s magazines and manuals. Whether crocheted, embroidered, or adorned with ribbons and lace, new designs were as varied as they were plentiful.

In many of Isabella Alden’s books, the heroines engaged in sewing tidies for their homes. They also made tidies to give as gifts or sell in order to raise funds for the church or to support missions.


Tidy pattern from Peterson’s Magazine, June 1888

In Household Puzzles, Carrie Hartley crocheted a tidy, “a pretty thing of wreaths and leaves.”

“Isn’t it lovely?” she said, holding it up to view. “I am perfectly wild over fancy work.”

And in A New Graft on the Family Tree, Louise received so many new tidies as wedding gifts, her sister Estelle didn’t think she could ever use them all. By Christmas, however, Louise had made use of a good number of the tidies:

Perhaps no one little thing contributed to the holiday air which the room had taken on more than did the tidies of bright wools and clear white, over which Estelle had wondered when they were being packed.

Louise thought of her and smiled, and wished she could have had a glimpse of them as they adorned the two rounding pillow-like ends of the sofa, hung in graceful folds from the small table that held the blossoming pinks, adorned the back and cushioned seat and arms of the wooden rocking-chair in the fireplace corner, and even lay smooth and white over the back of Father Morgan’s old chair, which Louise had begged for the other chimney-corner, and which Mrs. Morgan, with a mixture of indifference and dimly-veiled pride, had allowed to be taken thither. Little things were these, everyone, yet what a transformation they made!


Tidy pattern Peterson Mag Jan 1888

Tidy pattern from Peterson’s Magazine, January 1888


Tidy pattern from Petersons Magazine Oct 1888

Tidy pattern from Peterson’s Magazine, October 1888

Some tidies required extraordinary skill and patience to accomplish. Creating them often involved long hours of painstaking effort; but sewing tidies (and other needlework projects that fell into the category of “fancywork”) was a way for ladies to express their creativity and imaginative vision, while beautifying their homes.

Drawing-room at Sevenoaks by Charles Essenhigh Corke, 1905

Would you like to read more about the seven Sutherland Sisters and their remarkable hair that made them a fortune? Click on the following links to read articles in Yankee Magazine and Collectors’ Weekly:

Yankee Magazine:

Collectors Weekly:

You can click on any of the images in this post to view a larger version.

A Dose of Beef Tea

29 Sep

In the latter half of the 18th Century and the early 19th Century, illness of any kind was not to be taken lightly. A simple head cold or case of influenza, if not properly cared for, could easily prove fatal. Isabella Alden illustrated the point in Jessie Wells, when Jessie’s friend Mate came down with a cold and died within days of complications from a fever.

Nurse with medicine bottlesIllness, disease and death were topics Isabella Alden regularly dealt with in her books; but she also gave insight into the remedies of the time. Patent medicines were widely available but home cures were even more popular. (You can read a previous post about the Molasses Cure by clicking here.)

By far the most popular cure Isabella mentioned in her books was beef tea, and for good reason. Beef tea was more frequently prepared for invalids and patients than any other curative. In 1863 The New York Times published an article about care Union soldiers received during the Civil War, citing their “beef-tea diet” as part of “their daily fare in hospital, its excellence and variety, and the admirable arrangements for their comfort.”

Illustration of invalid cookery from The Book of Household Management.

 An 1886 article in Arthur’s Home Magazine called it “the food which is perhaps more valuable and more frequently prepared for invalids than any other.”

“When first supplied in cases of weakness, beef-tea is usually taken with great relish. It seems to give strength and to supply just what is wanted, and a patient will look for it and enjoy it heartily.”

Woman holding tea cup and saucer


That was certainly the case in Workers Together: an Endless Chain. In the story Mrs. Saunders took a sick young man named Robert into her boarding house. Following doctor’s orders, she immediately began nursing Robert with doses of beef-tea:

The new nurse was ready-handed and cheerfully authoritative. She tucked a fine damask napkin under her patient’s chin, and skillfully fed him with spoonfuls of beef-tea from a solid silver teaspoon. When she decided that he had taken nourishment enough, she whisked away spoon and cup without question, straightened the bed-clothes, beat up another pillow and arranged it dexterously under his head, telling him, meantime, that he looked better already, and that he must keep up good courage, which was always half the battle in everything. Then she drew down the shades, and told him to mind the doctor and go to sleep; and assuring him that Tommy, the bell-boy, should sit just outside the door and would hear if he but just touched the little silver bell by his side, she disappeared before Robert had time to reflect on the questions that he wanted to ask her.

Tea Cup Vine-GraphicsFairyIn Her Associate Members, Chrissy Holmes served her husband a cup of beef tea every night to help him recuperate from an illness. When she found out her neighbor Mrs. Carpenter was ill, too, Chrissy took some of the beef tea to her:

“I should recommend some beef broth for a change, and fortunately I put into my basket a bottle of some which I made fresh today for my husband. I brought my little spirit-lamp along also, to heat it on, for the day is so warm I thought you might not have any fire.”

While she spoke she busied herself in getting out the bottle and  lamp, and a delicate china cup, tinted in pale blue. Mrs. Carpenter watched her with severe eyes.

“Mrs. Holmes,” she said, at last, “there isn’t the slightest need for that, and I wish you wouldn’t. If you think you make me more comfortable doing it, you don’t. I would much rather be let alone; I’m not used to being taken care of. I have had no care since I was a young girl, and I never expect any again. I don’t want it. All I ask of this world is a chance to work and be let alone.”

Tea cup floralChrissy did not react to Mrs. Carpenter’s ungrateful comments.

In silence she poured out and administered the beef tea once more, standing silently by while the contents of the cup were being drained again and pronounced very good.

“I can feel that it is giving me strength,” said Mrs. Carpenter, as she returned the cup; “and I am obliged to you, though I’ve almost forgotten how to express such feelings.”

Armour & Company advertisement, 1900.

Beef tea was widely believed to give strength to the ill, but by the 1880s the medical community began to frown on it as a cure.

“Beef tea is a stimulant rather than a food. A person may be hungered to death on it,” declared J. Milner Fothergill, M.D., in an 1880 paper to the Royal College of Physicians in London.

But by that time, belief in the healing powers of beef tea was deeply entrenched in public lore, helped in large part by the manufacturers of beef extracts. The products were a boon to homemakers, since making beef tea in the kitchen was time consuming and wasteful (a pound of beef yielded barely a pint of tea.)

Recipe Beef Tea


This 1896 trade card for Armour’s Extract of Beef promotes the product’s use in making soups.

Armours Extract trade card 1896 front    Armours Extract trade card 1896 back

But in other ads, the same company also promised health benefits to people who used their product, as this 1895 magazine ad shows:

Armour's print ad 1895

In the 1860s a whiskey distiller in Cincinnati, Ohio began producing a “tonic elixir and liquid extract of beef” they claimed could cure “female diseases,” indigestion, and weaknesses of all kinds.

R&T Tonic Elixir ad, 1870

American companies like Cudahy Packing Company and Armour & Company—which originally manufactured beef products to make broths, soups, and gravies—boosted their sales by claiming healing properties in their products.

Cudahy's Rex Brand Fluid Beef trade card front      Cudahy's Rex Brand Fluid Beef trade card interior

Johnston’s Fluid Beef, which originated in Scotland, took great care to publish testimonials in America that strengthened their health claims:

Johnstons Fluid Beef testimonial

Soon other companies like Liebig Company followed suit. They promised good health, strength and vitality to individuals who consumed their product.

Liebig Trade Card 1885      Liebig ad 1899

Bovril, a British product developed by Johnston’s Fluid Beef of Scotland, didn’t promise simply to cure American consumers of disease. They went one step further and promised to prevent disease.

Bovril benefits ad undated

Bovril’s advertising to Americans typically featured images that reinforced their claims of strength, vitality and energy. Strong, charging bulls, healthy, masculine men and beautiful, energetic women graced Bovril’s advertisements.

Bovril Steer undated    Bovril Steer ad card

Bovril trade card 1903    Bovril Swimmers

Bovril British Navy ad 1903     Bovril Sailor ad 1903

And this ad conveyed a subliminal message that if Bovril was used in hospitals throughout the world, the product’s health claims must be true.

Bovril ad hospitals

Today Bovril is still marketed around the world, although the company no longer makes inflated health claims based on dubious scientific testimony. The product has a loyal following, particularly among fans of football (that’s soccer to us in America), who take it along as a hot drink to sip while cheering on their favorite team on chilly mornings.

Bovril Today

The distinctive Bovril pot.



Riding the Cars

14 Aug

Street-cars traversing Thomas Circle in Washington, DC in 1907

New York City looking north on Broadway in 1910.


When Isabella Alden wrote about her characters “riding the cars,” she wasn’t referring to automobiles. The “cars” she wrote about were steam cars and streetcars.

Steam cars were steam-engine locomotives, which ran between cities on rails. By the late 1800s, the period when most of Isabella’s stories take place, railroad stations were springing up in small towns and running across rural areas as fast as workers could lay the rails.


Offices of The Herald newspaper in New York City.

Like locomotives, streetcars also ran on rails, but the passenger compartments were smaller and narrower.  They were typically powered by either cable-pulley systems or electricity, but early streetcars were pulled by horses. Streetcars were common forms of in-town transportation in the early 1900s. Small, mid-size, and major cities across the country had robust street-car systems to transport riders throughout a city’s major business areas and often from one end of town to another.

Streetcars running on First Avenue, downtown Seattle.

In Twenty Minutes Late, Caroline Bryant saw her first streetcar when she arrived in Philadelphia. Her only previous experience with riding a car was a seven-hour train trip she’d taken with her mother years before. In Philadelphia, her companion led the way to the street and lifted his hand in a peculiar manner.

A man who was driving what was to Caroline the strangest-looking wagon she had ever seen, drew up his horses and the wagon came to a stand-still. It had a number of little wheels, smaller than Caroline supposed wagon wheels were ever made.

“We’ll get into this car,” he said, “and that will save us a long walk and leave us a long enough one at the other end. I often wish I lived nearer the depot, but then it wouldn’t be so nice for my children as where I am now.”

Caroline was busy with one word: “car.” But there was no engine, only two horses.

“It must be a street car.”

She had heard Miss Webster speak of them, and also Judge Dunmore, and here she was getting into one!

When Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893, horse-drawn streetcars were the norm, but by the early 1900s, streetcars became more mechanical and horse-power was replaced by cables or electricity.

04 Butte Montana 1907

Main Street in Butte, Montana about 1907.

Smaller cities and towns had streetcars, as well. This hand-colored photo from a 1907 postcard shows a streetcar running the length of Main Street in Butte, Montana.

In Judge Burnham’s Daughters, the Judge’s young son, Erskine, was very fond of riding the cars. One Sunday the Judge offered to take the family into the city to attend church at St. Paul’s, a fashionable church where the worship music was supposed to be very fine.

10 Worcester Mass Train Station

An example of a train and streetcar station. This one is in Worcester, Massachusetts.

It would have been an easy trip. From their small town the Burnhams would have ridden a steam car into the city. Upon arrival, they wouldn’t have had to leave the station to find a  streetcar to take them to the area of town by St. Paul’s church.

Busy Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1910.

Streetcar workers in New York City.

But the Judge’s wife Ruth refused to let little Erskine go because she believed it was wrong to ride the cars on the Sabbath.

“My darling, don’t you remember mamma told you how the poor men who have to make the cars go, cannot have any Sunday—any time to go to church, and read the Bible, and learn about God and heaven?”

Streetcar workers in Albany, NY.

“I know, mamma; but the cars go all the same, and the men have to work, and so why can’t we ride on them? They wouldn’t have to work any harder because we went along.”

In Ruth Erskine’s Son, the street-cars stopped at the corner of the Burnham’s residential street, where widowed Ruth Burnham lived with her son and his wife. Now an adult, Erskine Burnham took the 8:00 a.m. car to his office downtown each morning just “as surely as the sun was to rise”; and every evening he returned home by streetcar to his wife and his mother.

“I don’t suppose you two can fully appreciate what it is to me to get home to you after a stuffy, snarly day in town. I sit in the car sometimes with closed eyes after a day of turmoil to picture how it will all look. But the reality always exceeds my imagination.”

A streetcar running down a residential street in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In the evenings, his doting mother, Ruth, was able to watch for Erskine’s return from her bedroom window.

She leaned forward, presently, and watched Erskine’s car stop at the corner, and watched his springing step as he came with glad haste to his home.

In the majority of her books, Isabella Alden’s characters rode on the cars to get to work, to escape the city for a country idyll, or simply to run errands around town. But riding the cars was a little different for women than it was for men. Watch for a future post, Ladies Riding Cars, that will explore one of the unique challenges women faced while traveling on public transportation.


The Hall in the Grove

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Isabella Alden

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Author Jenny Berlin

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